Foundations of Complex Thinking: What is missing from social media discourse

The papers collected in this blog center around the topic of complex thinking as a hallmark of individual freedom, organizational effectiveness, and societal well-being. They all focus on Lebensbefreiung, the unburdening from needless linear clutter in the mind and the obfuscation of communication. The articles point to, and explicate, a tradition of deep thinking that in the Western tradition began with Plato and survived to the time of Hegel and Heidegger, but through the onslaught of social media and simplistic ‘agile’ tool kits is presently at risk of being disavowed and forgotten, not only in education, but in training and management.

The research reported in these papers is based on DTF, the Dialectical Thought Form Framework (Laske 1999, 2008, 2015, see publications at

DTF is a synthesis and refinement of work done by Basseches (1984), Bhaskar (1993), and Jaques (1994). It was born of the need to gain a comprehensive concept of adult development that has gone missing in the work of Loevinger, Kegan, and other ‘developmental’ researchers and their followers (like Wilber) by one-sidedly focusing on social-emotional, not also cognitive, development. By contrast, DTF transcends meaning-making toward sense-making both of which are needed to understand adult development in full. DTF is also a needed remedy for the restriction of cognitive research to purely logical, rather than also transformational (“dialectical”), thinking (Commons, Dawson).

The papers approach complex thinking from a cognitive-developmental point of view in recognition of the work by Roy Bhaskar on “Dialectic: The pulse of freedom” (1993, Verso). They show that and how human thinking unfolds to maturity over an individual’s lifespan, to the effect that purely logical thinking naturally expands into systemic and transformational thought, in order to leave behind the fallacies logical thinking relative to the real world is prone to.

As can be experienced by engaging with DTF, cognitive development is open to learning, while social-emotional development is not. (It simply ‘is’). This hypothesis has been amply confirmed by the teaching programs engaged with by an international student body at IDM, the Interdevelopmental Institute, taught since the year 2000. The programs have shown that complex thinking can be taught to anybody who will listen (but not many people do).

All titles below are followed by a short encapsulation of the central topic discussed in the paper in question.


The first two articles lay the groundwork for CDF. They derive from my 1999 dissertation on the ‘Developmental Structure/Process Tool’, later renamed to Constructive Developmental Framework. Both articles introduce the comprehensive CDF view on adult development which combines Kegan’s social-emotional with Basseches’ cognitive line. To this synthesis, I added in 2002 Aderman’s Need/Press questionnaire, thereby establishing a three-dimensional perspective on adults and adult work delivery for which CDF is now known.

Linking Two Lines of Adult Development (2001)

In this article I follow my 1999 dissertation, linking for the first time Kegan’s “meaning making” with Basseches’ “sense making”, a linkage unrecognized or unaccepted more than 15 years later, with predictable results of developmental triumphalism.

Executive Development as Adult Development (2002)

In this article, I follow my 1999 dissertation, declaring executive development being part of adult development, an embedding unrecognized and unaccepted more than 15 years later, with predictable results of CEO triumphalism.


The articles that follow share the topic of ‘dialectical’, ‘transformational’, or ‘deep’ thinking that has increasingly been addressed relative to teams, not individuals. My work with, and writings about, teams, is based on the social-emotional team typology found in Measuring Hidden Dimensions (‘volume 1’) of 2005 (chapter 10).

At the end of the sequence of articles that follow here, one finds the introduction to a book on collaboration in teams, written by Jan De Visch and myself. Self organization in teams, social networks, and society at large is seen as anchored in a dialogical mindset characterized by the fluid use of dialectical thought forms in the sense of DTF.

Transformational-Thinking-in-Business (2009)

In this slide set, I refine “thinking in business” as comprising both social-emotional stance and cognitive tools and exemplifies dialectical thinking by way of examples of the thinking of three differently developed managers.

On the Autonomy and Influence of the Cognitive Developmental Line (2010)

This prize-winning article written for the 2010 integral Conference has so far been unable to call forth an acknowledgement of the autonomy of the cognitive development of adults, — not only in the integral community which has joined the social-emotional triumphalism train. People on this train continue to be uninterested in the intricate relationship between adults’ cognitive and social-emotional development, often going so far as to call social-emotional development “cognitive”. However, the term cognitive in CDF refers to thinking that transcends purely logical thinking, a way of knowing urgently needed in an increasingly digital society, but conspicuously absent from it.

Another question that remains unasked by people on the social-emotional triumphalism train is the interrelationship between the social-emotional and psychological profile of a person (or team), which is no less intricate than the one linking social-emotional and cognitive adult development. To make matters worse, the social-emotional dimension is often reduced to the psychological one, as in Torbert’s work. It is also sometimes mixed in with the spiritual dimension (as in Wilber’s work), to make the confusion complete.

Bhaskar spoke of illicit fusion and fission.

Better Thinking in a Global World (2011)

This text outlines a course on dialectical thinking at IDM in 2011. It points to publications on the topic, now found at Under this link the reader finds new editions of older Laske publications in pdf form (sent out upon purchase by IDM within 24 hours). In particular, The DTF Manual (DTFM) has appeared in a stand-alone edition in 2017, and the 2008 book on dialectical thinking is now in its second edition (2017) due to the work of Alan Snow. A translation of these book on complex thinking into other languages than English does presently not exist, but there is a number of German articles found under

Introduction to DTF, the Dialectical Thought Form Framework (2011)

In this slide set, I provide a comprehensive introduction not only to DTF thought forms (TFs), but also to the IDM “cognitive interview”, its theoretical foundation and interpretation that is the basis of IDM cognitive assessment of individuals and teams.

Living through four Eras of Cognitive Development (2012)

In this article, I shed lght on the existential consequences of passing through four eras of increasingly more complex thinking toward dialectical, “transformational” thinking and the realization that there is a deep gap between “how humans think” and “how reality works” (as G. Bateson already told us).

From Logical Thinking to Practical Wisdom – Laske & Frischherz (2013)

In this slide set, we introduce to DTF, showing that experience in dialectical text analysis is the best preparation for learning to think dialectically in real time. ‘Test analysis’ originally refers to the analysis of recorded interviews based on thought forms but can be applied to any text, book, speech, mission statement, etc. to gauge the complexity of thinking on which a text is based. The benefit of text analysis lies in developing an internal dialog with oneself as well as an external dialog in a group through which a store of thought forms is built up in the mind. “Dialectical thinking” is based on such a memory store.

Introduction to Dialectical Thinking  (2014)

This slide set was written for a webinar on complex thinking held at IDM in March 2014 together with Bruno Frischherz, Luzern, Switzerland. It is a comprehensive overview of the process and outcomes of IDM cognitive assessment with a focus on an individual’s cognitive profile. The webinar emphasizes the function of thought forms (TFs) as mind openers in dialog and introduces dialectical text analysis — of transcribed interviews and book texts — by which to determine the cognitive complexity of monological and dialogical exchanges.

The Rebounding of Dialectical Thinking in Turbulent Times (2014)

In this paper, I reflect on the journey that led me to CDF as taught at IDM. I discuss the relationship between Kegan’s social-emotional and Basseches’ cognitive work. In addition, I reflect on King & Kitchener’s work on the acquisition of reflective judgment which I see as defining an epistemic linkage between social-emotional and cognitive adult development.

On Teaching Dialectical Thinking, London Conference (2014)

In this conference paper, I outline the methods by which dialectical thinking is taught at IDM. I reflect on the Institute’s case study cohort method by which learners of complex thinking amplify their learning by dialoguing with each other with a focus on evaluating the thought structure articulated in recorded and transcribed cognitive interviews. I distinguish an ‘artisan’ and a ‘peer’ program for learning complex thinking through DTF, the first based on qualitative research leading to individual case studies, the second focused on practical cases requiring solutions of relevance within an organizational environment.

From AQAL to AQAT (Bruno Frischherz 2014)

In this slide text for the 2014 Integral European Conference, Bruno Frischherz outlines the individual DTF thought forms, pointing to the absence, in “integral” thinking, of an ability to deal with “the Other” or “You”, to demonstrate the absence of foundations for dialog in Wilber’s thinking.

IDM Teleseminar about Redesigning Leadership Journeys (Jan De Visch 2014)

In this slide set for an IDM webinar, Jan De Visch sets in contrast to each other what he calls downloading and deep thinking. He compares the annual reports of two different companies based on thoughts forms used (DTF text analysis). His intent is to show that the difference in companies’ productivity and profitability is due to the difference between a low and a high degree of cognitive fluidity shown in annual reports. De Visch concludes that companies whose culture fails to foster complex thinking are destined to be come ‘low-growth’ companies whereas those companies whose cognitive culture invites complex thinking are innovative and thrive.

Reshaping Cognitive Development as a Social Practice (2015)

In this conference presentation, I introduce into Dialectical Critical Realism (DCR) a developmental, dialogical, and dialectical epistemology for enhancing adults’ cognitive development toward complex thinking (“dialectic”). This theoretical approach needs not remain academic but can become a pragmatic strategy for solving real-world problems in a holistic and transformational manner with a high likelihood of success. Emphasis is put on dialectical thinking as a social practice learned by way of a dialogue method called the Case Study Cohort (CSC) method, taught at the Interdevelopmental Institute (IDM) since 2000.

CDF as a Business Developmental Tool (2015)

This slide set, I introduce CDF as a potent framework for thinking in business, specifically for the sake of strengthening innovation and collaborative intelligence in teams. The slides are structured as follows:

• Part I, Foundations of Innovation in Organizations
– Accountability Hierarchy
– Capability Hierarchy
– Matching both Hierarchies using Critical Systems Thinking
• Part IIa, A New Approach to “Thinking Things Through”
• Part IIb, What is the Mind Set Your Thinking is Based on?
• Part III, Exercises for Individuals
• Part IV, Exercises for Teams

Dialectic as Core Discipline of an Integral Epistemology (2016)

In this article, I discuss the theoretical foundations of my Primer book of 2015 on dialectical thinking for integral leaders (2015). I give examples for what is dialectical thinking throughout the paper.

How Bhaskar Deepened the Notion of Adult Cognition (2016)

This text is an homage to Roy Bhaskar who, by resurfacing dialectical thinking shows important fallacies that purely logical thinking is prone to, thereby — unbeknownst to him — deepening the notion of adult cognitive development over the life span.

On the Unity of Social-Emotional and Cognitive Development [A. Snow editor] 2016

In this article, I undertake to demonstrate the unity of social-emotional and cognitive adult development by laying bare the structure of the progression of meaning-making in terms of Bhaskar’s four moments of dialectic (MELD). In this pursuit,
I treat thought forms not simply as instruments for human thinking but as actual forces in the real world (outside of human control), thus as generative mechanisms of the unfolding of consciousness. The argumentation is intricate and requires rereading of the text.

John Stewart Reviews Laske’s Primer (2016)

In this article, John Stewart reviews my book “Dialectical thinking for integral leaders” (2015), shedding light on the epistemological, social, and political relevance of DTF dialectical thinking.

R. Volckmann Reviews Laske’s Primer (2016)

A brief review of the Primer book by the late Russ Volckmann, lost to us much too early.

A Progressive Self Study Course in DTF (2017)

In this short text, I present an outline of the steps one needs to take to progressively enter into complex, “dialectical”, thinking. The table of steps presented refines a presentation by Nick Shannon and Bruno Frischherz offered at the 2015 ESRAD conference in The Hague, The Netherlands. The importance of the presentation lies in pointing out the difference between the social-emotional and cognitive development of adults: the former is impervious to “learning” — nobody can be pushed to a higher ‘stage’ by behavioral or even epistemological techniques — while the latter is open to learning by way of transcending purely logical thinking.

Introduction to Dynamic Collaboration: Strengthening Self Organization and Collaborative Intelligence in Teams (Jan De Visch & Otto Laske, ConnectTransform & IDM Press, Spring 2018)

In this book, the cognitive perspective on adult development elaborated in DTF and unfolded in DTFM, the Dialectical Thought Form Manual, is initially trained on teams (chapters 1-3), and is then expanded to social networks (chapter 4) and society at large (chapter 5). DTF is fully integrated in CDF so that both sense- and meaning-making are equal partners and a psychological perspective on recruiting employees for self-organizing teams is added. Deep thinking is made the focus of dialog in teams (based on “language does not describe, but creates your world”). The book introduces the need for a ‘dialogical mindset’ and for ‘dialogically savvy apps’ nowhere to be seen at present.

The book unfolds four main insights, all of them grounded in developmental theory and practice:

  1. The cognitive structure of team dialog taking place in a business context is crucial for its own sake, not only the subject matter it is focused on. Structure of dialog is a function of the specific fusion of levels of cognitive development in a team, and thus nothing to be taken for granted but measurable in terms of thought forms, thus open to evaluation.
  2. Companies are composed of different universes of discourse (“We-Spaces”, called ‘strata’ by E. Jaques) that are developmentally distinct; they differ in thematic focus and scope of holistic and systemic thinking. Three We-Spaces stand out: (1) continuous improvement, (2) end-to-end values streams, (3) business model transformation.
  3. Teams differ in their members’ ability to deal with their developmental differences which decides whether a team is “upwardly” or “downwardly” divided. Downwardly-divided teams get sabotaged by a less developed minority or majority relative to a higher-developed one. In upwardly-divided teams, a more highly developed majority manages to ‘on-board’ its less-developed minority, and thus becomes able to create collaborative intelligence.
  4. Collaborative intelligence in teams comes to fruition under two main conditions: (1) when team members’ Job 1 (the immediate task) is not overwhelmed by Job 2 (their need to safeguard the integrity of their individual developmental agenda), and (2) when team practices are linked by a team leader in a governance role which connects them in a structured way, e.g., by enabling critical feedback to emerge. Only then does a new OS (operating system) emerges that fosters higher-level thinking.
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